Appalachian State (10-2, 7-1 Sun Belt) vs Louisiana (11-1, 8-0 Sun Belt)
Saturday, December 4th, 2021 3:30pm EST
Radio: 97.3 FM North Wilkesboro, 96.5 FM/1450 AM Boone, 1320 AM Greensboro, 107.7FM/1450 AM Hendersonville, Varsity Network App
Surface: Matrix Turf
Jeff Sagarin Ratings
App State: 77.21
App State is favored by the Sagarin ratings by .62 points
Line: App State -3
Series: App State leads 8-2
Last Meeting: App State 13, Louisiana 41, December 12, 2020, Lafayette, LA
We all saw this coming, didn’t we? When the Sun Belt released its preseason poll for the 2021 season, Louisiana was a near unanimous pick to win the west. Someone voted for Arkansas State. App State and Coastal were tied in total points, but Coastal managed six first place votes to App State’s four. Still pretty well done by the coaches, except for maybe one or two guys. Regardless, nobody is surprised we are here again, with App State and Louisiana playing for the conference title, the only two schools to ever play in a Sun Belt Championship game. For the first time, this game is being played in Lafayette. The home team has won both such contests, and also lost their head coach to a Power Five school. For Billy Napier, this is his third appearance. This will be App State’s third different coach in the game. These teams are pretty familiar with one another and pretty much know what to expect from the other side. It all comes down to playing ball.
Since the last time we saw the Cajuns, they have not lost. Same goes for the Mountaineers. On the season both teams have had six common opponents. Both are 6-0 against those teams. Louisiana played those opponents tighter than App State did. The Cajuns outscored those teams 153-119, while the Mountaineers took those games a little more personally. App State outscored those teams 258-75. Five of those six, Louisiana played their foes within one score, with Troy being the outlier. App State closest game came last week, a 24-point win over Georgia Southern. That has been what Louisiana has done most of the year outside of a couple games. Sure, they handled a few teams with ease, but its these six games that are most interesting. Not all of these games have the exact same circumstances. Such as, App played Southern late, against a third-string quarterback, where the Cajuns faced the Eagles during the last game of the Chad Lunsford era in September. App State also avoided Jake Bentley from South Alabama. The Cajuns had to mount a comeback against Georgia State, where App finished the Panthers off in the second half.
From bad quarterbacks and backup quarterbacks to one of the most successful in school history. That is the challenge for App State’s defense this week, when they face Levi Lewis for the eighth time. We discussed it earlier this season, and although he has not started all of those games, he has played a lot against App State. Keeping Lewis in the pocket is a must. Although he is not typical dual threat, he can and will run when he sees the opportunity. Lewis has four rushing touchdowns this year, in four different games. Three of those came against three of the better defenses in the conference, including App State. Since the last meeting against the Mountaineers, Lewis has been really effective in the air, with ten touchdowns passes to just two interceptions. In two of the four games in which Lewis did throw an interception, against Georgia State and Arkansas State, the Cajuns were really challenged. The last game Lewis threw a pick and was not challenged on the scoreboard, was against App State. It appears the Cajuns have been intentional in taking care of the football as the season wound down.
The Cajuns have done a good job spreading the ball among their offensive skill players all year long. In the matchup earlier this season, nine different Cajuns caught a pass, and four players received rushing attempts outside of Levi Lewis. On the year, eleven Cajuns caught ten or more passes and the leading receiver, Peter LeBlanc led the team with 33 catches for 350 yards. He was consistent for eleven of twelve games. Outside of the Georgia State game, where LeBlanc caught nine passes for 118 yards, he was held under 43 yards receiving in every other game. Freshman Kyren Lacy scored on a two-yard catch in the previous matchup against App, and was an end zone favorite. Despite just 21 receptions all season long, Lacy found the end zone five times on the year, and in each of the last three games to end the season. Similarly with the running backs, not one back has a majority of the carries. Chris Smith has 144 carries for 834 yards and Montrell Johnson has 135 carries for 776 yards. They have combined for nineteen touchdowns. In the last two games, Smith has 19 carries and Johnson has 16 attempts. That’s down from their season average. Those carries went to Emani Bailey, who was averaging roughly eight carries a game. Bailey had thirteen attempts in each of the last two games. Wisely the Cajuns have conserved their top two backs for this weekend while giving more work for their third back.
Familiarity in football is super important. It’s the reason why you see teams like BYU struggle with Georgia Southern a week ago. Same reason App State slowly killed off the Eagles last week. Eventually talent wins out. App and Southern know each other all too well. The game was never in doubt, just the final. In the end, App State let up a field goal, which broke their second half scoreless streak. Still, that is four games giving up just three second half points. A continuation of that trend would be quite welcome on Saturday. Thomas Hennigan, Malik Williams and Jalen Virgil were responsible for the touchdowns, all coming on big plays. Virgil going back-to-back on kickoff returns in consecutive years against Southern will become highlights we see for years to come. Yet, it’s the App State defense that has stolen the show for the last several weeks. The Mountaineers have allowed 240 yards rushing in the last four games combined. In October, the Mountaineers gave up a season-high 246 yards rushing to the Cajuns. It is clear that Louisiana wants to run, and App State needs to continue its recent dominance in defending the run.
There are two train of thoughts here. You either believe the first matchup mattered, or it did not. Mattered as in, that data can be used as a predictive indicator of future matchups. Or, it was an absolute fluke, or as some football types would say, just one of those days. App State had a lot of those days this year that were completely opposite of what happened that night. Louisiana, in turn had a couple games this year that resembled that night. But, that game was abnormal. Both teams have played half of a season since then. App State has looked good enough since that night to make me a believer. Both teams have had their offenses struggle at times, but have been carried by their defenses. The Cajuns seem to struggle offensively for longer periods of time. It might take the App State offense some time to wake up, but when they do, it comes in bunches. Despite that, over the course of the season, the Mountaineers scored 100 or more points in every quarter this season. App State scored 223 points this year in the second half. Their opponents scored 227 points all year. This is not an argument for most points scored in the other twelve games wins this weekend, but more to state that several weeks ago, the App offense never got it going. Those are just facts. Had the Mountaineers turnover margin been -2 in that game, it might have had a chance. Being down -4 in that category is undoable. Many statistical models over time have come to a consensus that winning the turnover battle is the easiest path to win a football game. A minus-four turnover margin in a single game sets your chance of winning any game at about 10%. Louisiana is a top five team nationally in turnover margin, but that has more to do with turning the ball over themselves just eight times all year. The Cajuns were +12 on the season in turnover margin, and one-third of those turnovers gained, happened in one game. What is the likelihood of another one-off game like that happening again? Smaller than you can imagine. App State has shown all year it can fight off a turnover or two in hole, depending on the opponent, but anything more than that on Saturday will be too much. We all want to see a game decided on the field between two elite defenses. The Mountaineers have found ways down the stretch to score anyway they need to, whether by special teams or defense. They’ll find their way to lifting another trophy soon after.
The First Pick